Hello my darlings, and Happy Darwin Day! If you have a moment, spare a thought for the beardy father of evolutionary biology and maybe stop by this post to enjoy his timeless charm.
Today we’re launcing a Girls in Science series of blog posts! If you haven’t been paying attention, I am a Woman in Science. During the day I work as research assistant in molecular biology, although I am a more broadly trained biological researcher. I am a gender egalitarian and a feminist. A passionate science communicator, I am an award-winning science writer who has been shortlisted for exciting prizes, and I’m working on an even cooler project that I hope to share with you all soon. I am really passionate about this stuff, you guys. Science & ladies. Hit me up anytime.
And these subjects have been appearing in the news a lot lately. For some reason, the media has suddenly noticed the fact that There Aren’t Enough Girls In Science (Yay!) and it’s tying itself in knots trying to figure out ways to fix this without actually addressing any problems or providing any solutions (Aww.) This requires some remarkable contortions of thinking. So I’m going to talk about some solid, real plans and propositions to REALLY get little girls interested in science, right?
Frankly, I think it would be disingenuous and hypocritical of me to do so.
And I’m going to tell you why. Welcome to Part One of Girls in Science: Kids Don’t Rule the World (Even if They’re Sexy.)
Short answer: because academic scientific research is not a good career choice for many women!
Long answer: well, here you go.
The Slipping, Dripping, Tripping Pipeline
Girls, girls, girls. Not enough girls in science. They start off well! Consistently, more women than men enroll in life sciences programs in universities. But the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and medicine – remain male-dominated, and the vast majority of senior faculty are male. Where do all the girls go? The media asks this over and over again in a wounded tone, as if girls are a species of rare and mysterious bird whose migration patterns are subject to unaccountable whims. The general feeling is that you attract more girls into STEM fields with the clever use of lures, and we just haven’t stumbled upon the right ones to use yet.
So where do all the science ladies go? Oh, we just leave, don’t we? Like unicorns. Once we reach Science Level 10, we run into the sea. Or something like that. Right?
But it’s probably got a lot to do with reasons like
- Female scientists are regarded as less capable and competent than men!
- Female scientists are offered lower starting salaries and are perceived to be “worth less”!
- Female scientists are paid less than men (and scientist pay is not fantastic to begin with!)
- Female scientists are more likely to quit when it’s time to have a family!
AND A BUNCH OF OTHER REASONS which I will talk about more in future posts, but which contain things like active sexual discrimination and we will regard your stupid “baby” as passive-aggressive career suicide and NOBODY GETS PROMOTED, EVER. And on top of all this, did you know that most research scientists don’t get nice salaries and steady jobs? Instead, what scientists do is stop working every year to write a small manuscript begging for a job and some more money, and sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don’t. This alone – Science As She is Played – is a massive turn-off… and you don’t hear about it in undergrad.
Yet science is one of the most rewarding fields ever and I love it to bits, I really do! This is a really complicated subject, and it’s one that existing Women in Science don’t really talk about – and I really think that we should. Like all gender issues, the inherently problematic structure of academia is difficult for men too, and like all careers, there was never any guarantee that every kid who starts out will end up in a good job. Science is competitive and critical, and most people know that going in. Perhaps we don’t realize quite how unproductive and inefficient it really is, but science is for smart people, and smart people try hard, right? So you should just be smart and try hard, little girls! Then nobody will ever hurt you.
Sadly, the way that we socialize girls, the way that we treat women, the way that we treat junior scientists, the complete failure of our societies to address reproductive support, the ways that we assess academic achievement, the ways that we assess personal competence, the value we place on women’s work, and the ridiculous and counterproductive pressures of science/academia combine to make STEM careers an unattractive prospect for Young Women. The media’s hand-wringing and increasingly patronizing attempts to interest girls in science are completely missing the point. Are girls slipping through the gender gaps or dripping through the leaky pipeline or tripping on the ivory staircase? I don’t fucking blame them. None of those happy clappy Science Communicators bothered to tell girls that actually making a career of Sciencing While Female is exactly like signing up for the Hunger Games.
Those bright-eyed kids that we’re always talking about inspiring? Well, Terribly Sad Truth Time: no matter how much you take little girls to the museum and cheer-lead them through their math worksheets, they’re not going to grow up to be researchers and professors. (And that’s okay! A science-based education creates wonderfully critical and well-rounded politicians, writers, creatives, teachers, journalists, business owners, editors, policy advisers, lawyers and more! But those children probably won’t grow up to be “scientists,” and that’s what you’re promising them. Stop doing that.)
The “leaky pipeline” and “the gender gap” are definitely societal issues that we need to address, but Outreach and Interest and Getting Girls Talking About Science are not the biggest problems here. Young women have demonstrated that they are capable and interested in science and they just need a bit of societal support to succeed. Good! But instead of addressing the fact that science is still a poor career choice for ambitious and intelligent young women, we continue to throw bright colors and pink glitter at little girls, as if it’s all their problem. As if you can fix fundamentally broken, unfair shit by hypnotizing and deceiving little children. I think that’s how supervillain origin stories get started.
WHAT IS GOING ON AND WHY IS IT HAPPENING?!
The Guardian, which hasn’t exactly been knocking this topic out of the park, has a positive wealth of other ideas! One apparently serious suggestion by a Guardian blogger was to classify psychology as a hard science, because girls are disproportionately attracted to cuddly, soft psychology and if it just got a little bit more respect as a study then we wouldn’t have any gender inequality at all. The Telegraph, another popular newspaper for purported grownups, hurried aboard with a piece called “Skirting The Issue: Science is Sexy, and it’s about time schoolgirls were told this.” Both pieces were put out on February 8th, 2013, in case you were wondering why it was suddenly 1980 and everyone was wearing shoulder pads.
There are so many problems with this that it’s hard to begin, but I really dislike selling things to young girls because they’re easy or sexy, and those are the two pitches that the media is selling the hardest. SCIENCE ISN’T SCARY OR HARD! IT’S EASY AND SEXY!
While I appreciate that psychology is a valuable study, I don’t think that moving goalposts is a good way to include young women. And I find it incredibly sketchy that little kids who don’t have developed secondary sex characteristics are being told that they need to get sexier and like sexy things. Alternatively, they can make cookies.
Not that there’s anything wrong with combining sexiness and science (and even cookies.) Two great tastes that taste great together. But why are we making kids do this, again? Doesn’t it look like the problem is in keeping adult women in science?
Why do the adult women leave? Well, for one thing, there aren’t enough attractive jobs when you get to a certain level (so you run into the sea). There isn’t a lot of opportunity for advancement in science, and it’s not really something that you get told in your early career. There are far more undergraduates than graduate school positions. There are far more graduate students than there are postdocs. There are far more postdocs than there is money to fund. There are exactly three lectureship positions, and you will have to poison your five closest friends in the world for a chance at one of them. Some people make it, and of those, a very few of them are women – and they’re operating against incredible societal pressures to do so. But I can count the female Principal Investigators I know on one hand, and I’ve been doing this at three universities on two continents, and those women always looked at me like I was going to assassinate them and steal their offices. (Senior female scientists are just as likely as men to downplay the contributions of aspiring female junior scientists.)
Sorry, did I say Hunger Games? I might have meant Game of Thrones. Both are more fun to watch than play, though.
But one big problem with that academic progression is before you stall out at Postdoc, you’ve spent your twenties and thirties, and reproducing at the stall-out stage means you’ll never go any farther. Since many women might have a child, or are suspected by others of wanting to have children at some point, they can cycle at postdoc forever. This, alone, is cited as a reason that women don’t progress in science and therefore leave. I’ll go into it later in the family-themed posts, but: we are Heisenberg Uncertainty Wombs. This terrifies academia, who insists on quantifying people’s worth based on – wait for it – work accomplished during their twenties and thirties. That, and the fact that women are generally considered to be less competent and valuable. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: women leave to have babies and then leave because they’ve been told that they’re going to leave to have babies and then leave because they don’t want to argue the point if god forbid they ever have a baby. And then they’re not welcome back because they left to have a baby. And when they do, it’s accepted that they’ll probably leave to go back to their baby. The scientist mothers I know exist in a heightened state of ferocious achievement that is exhausting.
As soon as students realize this, they bolt like startled horses. Do you blame them?
So there are some big, endemic problems here that I look forward to talking about more! But we aren’t going to end this kind of systematic discrimination by sexifying our little girls, because…
Sorry to Disappoint, But Kids Don’t Actually Rule The World
This reminds me of a memory from when I was a little kid of about four or five. Jabbing cables into our vintage TV and thoughtfully adjusting the rabbit ears with a long foil-covered wire, I happily set myself up to watch public television. An animated jingle came up, cheerfully burbling that previous generations had destroyed the planet and it was up to me to undo the damage by turning off the water while I brushed my teeth. I was a staunch environmentalist. I loved that clip and watched it attentively.
“Animals need water, people need it too
Keep it clean for me and I’ll keep it clean for you!”
I liked this chorus, which promised that if I refrained from poisoning water, I would be protected from drinking poisoned water. Since I did not poison water, I was nice and safe.
My mother wandered into the room and watched. The clip was colorful and bouncy – I still remember it! The general gist continued that there wasn’t any water left to spare, and we all had to save every drop or the dolphins would die.
My mother burst into tears and asked why They were making me watch this.
“Because it’s good for the environment,” I said firmly. “We need to stop wasting water.”
“How are you going to do that,” my mother asked bleakly.
“By turning off the water when I brush my teeth,” I said.
“Honeychild,” she said, “That’s nice, but it’s not your problem. It is the fucking fat rich white pigs and their problem.”
She always talked like this, so I didn’t pay attention. “I also won’t throw bottles into the ocean,” I said virtuously, even though I never threw bottles into the ocean and wouldn’t have dreamed of doing so.
“You know who they should be making these clips for?” Mom snapped. “The parents, and the people who water their lawns, and the industromilitary complex that is poisoning the world, and the American pigs who are charging the little children in Africa to use their own wells. What exactly are you children expected to do? You’re five. You don’t use any more water than a mouse.” She dramatically turned off the television, and I remember it all so clearly because, in doing so, she broke the knob.
Of course it’s great to educate kids about environmental issues and to encourage responsibility. Perhaps those jingles still influence me today to be a better citizen, to care about the earth. But you know what? My mom was right! My water-consumption choices were limited. Kids don’t use any more water than a mouse. It’s the people who water their lawns that need to be hauled up before the Dolphins of Judgement and made to drink the poison.
Yes, kids are the future and the time to train them is now: I’m not disagreeing with that. But in our societies, we don’t allow children any independence of thought or action, we don’t arm them with any agency, and we target them with responsibilities they can’t uphold and solutions they can’t apply. We’ve used up all the water – stop drinking so much of it, toddlers! There aren’t enough female scientists – girls, work harder! Use more math when baking cookies!
I appreciate the impulse in getting kids involved, but they’re just not the problems here. We live in societies that don’t give children – particularly girl children – that much agency. Acting like the gender gap will go away if we just browbeat and brainwash those lazy, underachieving little girls is irresponsible at best and malicious at worse. And you know what? I just don’t want to see it any more. Those little girls are working pretty hard. It’s not their fault that they’re getting booted off the ladder.
Going forward, for every ad I see with a pretty little girl in a pink lab coat, I want to see an ad for a funding opportunity for disadvantaged women. For every big sparkly push to send Traditionally Pretty Women Scientists into school classrooms to Lead and Inspire, I want to see equal amounts of money dedicated to mental health resources for female postdocs. I am very happy to be one of those Pretty Inspiring Woman Scientists! I just want some support for me, too! And I want a goddamn fellowship for those of my colleagues who aren’t Traditionally Pretty or Inspiring, because all of these campaigns seem to forget that women who aren’t calendar pinups are valuable scientists too – and that there is a place in science for young females who don’t fit into society’s narrow definitions of Hotness and Bounciness.
Once I get this support, I’ll actually be able to encourage those young women without being deceptive about their future prospects. Sound good?
But in the meantime, I’d like to end part one by encouraging you to mentor children to have an interest in the natural world by playing cool games, making backyard volcanoes, visiting museums, appreciating nature and looking at the stars.
Let’s stop acting like the fault lies in our unsexy kids.
EDITED TO ADD: This post is not meant to be discouraging! I’m getting some feedback that it’s discouraging, and that’s the opposite of what I really want. Guys, science is awesome and you should do it. Most of my female friends are rocking, ass-kicking scientists who don’t give a damn about society. Most of my male friends are equally fierce and cool scientists. We have fun and talk all day about epigenetics and dinosaurs, and when I cuddle with my husband at night we muse about grants and potential research directions. There is a reason that we do this, and the reason is that science is AWESOME. We don’t care that we spend our weekends in labs because we love being in labs. Please recognize that.
Because this is the sad part: I am surrounded at work by bright, clever, ferocious, highly accomplished women (we outnumber the men at the tech, grad student, and postdoc levels!) and we are all really great and deserve to keep doing this. At the levels above us? A landscape of dudes. Lovely dudes, clever dudes, wonderful generous clever men. Statistically, most of us won’t get into that landscape. To me, THAT is the problem. Not the fact that there aren’t enough of us, or the fact that we’re not bright, motivated, well-educated and good at science. Because we are many, and we are all of those things. Those are truths as immutable as the earth.
It isn’t that girls don’t do science. We do. WE DO A LOT OF IT. It’s that science is discouraging and we need help to make it into a more attractive career prospect for all of us. We need to stop leaving, and sexy pink commercials aren’t going to cut it for me.